Sunday, March 09, 2008

Higher oil prices: good news or bad?

As I write this, oil prices sit at just over $105 a barrel, in record territory even when adjusted for inflation. Gasoline futures are up, with prices at the pump expected to rise above the current national average, $3.18 a gallon. Later this year, they're also forecast to beat last May's record of $3.23 a gallon.

It's a definite hardship for cash-strapped workers who feel forced to commute by car, and has ripple effects on the economy as prices rise generally, reflecting higher transport costs. But does it have a more positive flip side?

With higher oil prices, U.S. gas consumption has trended lower for the past year, the Wall Street Journal reports, and for the past six weeks, it has steadily dropped. Ignore the economic doom and gloom for a moment and consider some of the positive side effects when gas consumption goes down:

• Air pollution drops, which means fewer asthma attacks, less hardening of the arteries, reduced lung damage in growing children, and lower cancer rates, just to name a few.

• Globe-warming CO2 emissions go down, which means -- probably -- a slower rate of increase in sea level, species range shifts and extinctions, natural disasters, insurance costs, and global average temperature itself.

• Tanker traffic diminishes, bringing a lower risk of oil spills. So does non-point source pollution into waterways.

• In the U.S., oil imports lessen, bringing greater energy independence (every little bit ought to help) and a better balance of payments for the ailing economy.

If lower gas consumption also means people are walking and/or bicycling more instead of driving, it's even better news. A little more exercise helps people whittle waistlines, mitigate chronic illness, and live longer, too.

Look past short-term analyses, and you can find further economic benefits. Higher oil prices can spur the development and competitiveness of renewables, helping us break the addiction to fossil fuels -- something we desperately need to do, both for environmental and foreign policy reasons.

If we can help the folks who find themselves in hardship situations due to rising gas costs -- providing better transit, ridesharing opportunities, walking and bicycling facilities, and telecommuting are just a few ways of doing this -- then rising oil and gas prices might be good news all around.